Can older workers thrive in the new gig economy?

Home » Can older workers thrive in the new gig economy?

Originally published at The Chronicle Herald

The next couple of decades will see the confluence of two profound trends in the working population. One is the aging of the workforce, while the other is the emergence of the gig economy. Ample discussion suggests that the two will merge like a hand in glove, but there is much about this romantic notion that ignores the impacts of emergent work culture and technology.

Nova Scotia leads most of North America with its proportion of residents over 65 (Florida takes top spot). With seniors set to make up over a quarter of the province’s population by 2030, we can expect older adults to show up everywhere, including the jobsite and the office. There are also clear motivations to work longer — to supplement whittled pension plans, to provide a challenge, to remain productive and support longer lifespans.

A recent report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers tells us that 59 per cent of Canadians surveyed would take some type of part-time work in retirement to supplement their income and many would stay on if they could work from home. The study cites advantages of a flexible workforce that include reductions in stress, illness and absenteeism, with corresponding improvements in work-life balance, job satisfaction and even commitment.

Enter the gig economy, where the structure of work is fast becoming non-traditional, featuring part-timers, consultants, freelancers and various independents. By some measures, the gig economy already makes up more than a fifth of the Canadian workforce. For employers, there are promises of efficiency, cost savings and flexibility. In many sectors, seniors will be enticed to stay on, for a dearth of Xs, Ys and Zs to fill their spots.

Many consider this to be a godsend for older adults, but the new gig world will be accompanied by big adjustments for the aging worker. Research by professors Donna Haeger (Cornell) and Tony Lingham (Case Western) tells us that the boundaries between work and life are being reconstructed (read knocked down) in ways that challenge the norms most boomers have come to know. Replacing work-life balance is a work-life fusion, where workers are expected to be constantly “on,” technology acts as the catalyst in changing how we interact with others in the workplace, and employees juggle the priorities of both worlds in real time.

Haeger and Lingham note profound differences between boomers and millennials in how each group thinks about mixing personal and occupational life. While Ys are very much a work-life fused cohort, having grown up in an “always on” environment, boomers are resistant to managing work and life concurrently. The separation of the two represents a cultural norm to people of the older cohort, who are not hard-wired to condone the constant presence of technology in daily life. For many workers easing into retirement, the attraction of the gig economy is in the prospect of keeping their work and personal lives apart, not merging the two.

Besides technology, there are structural aspects of the gig economy that are likely to promote this work-life fusion. Speak to any of your consulting or freelancing friends and they will confirm the challenges to personal space that are part and parcel of independent contracting.

This is particularly the case where the “employer” is taken out of the equation, in favour of a direct consultant-client relationship. It might be easy to negotiate a personal day or sick day with your employer organization, but less so with a client who is paying you directly as a sole contractor and wants the good or service delivered right now. There is a point at which gig work blurs into precarious employment.

None of this is to say that boomers can’t adapt. Haeger and Lingham confirm that boomers are just as comfortable as younger cohorts when it comes to collaborating in virtual space, meaning that face-to-face exchanges are not considered critical. This bodes well for those opting to work from home, particularly in geographies such as the Maritimes, where the proportion of rural residents is higher than in most other areas of Canada.

There is much about the gig model of work that is refreshing and exciting, and it can be as flexible an arrangement as the parties involved want it to be. We should anticipate a burgeoning number of seniors to embrace the opportunities that the gig economy offers up, but let’s not expect it all to come easily. The adjustments for many older workers will go beyond learning or engagement, and include a rethink of the structure of work and the intervention they are prepared to tolerate in daily life.


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